Author Spotlight: Sheila Turnage

head shotIn today’s Author Spotlight, Jo Hackl chats with author Sheila Turnage about her new children’s historical fiction book, Island of Spies. She’ll share the real historical events that inspired it, the setting that influenced it, and even give us a hint about her next writing project.


Book Summary:

book coverTwelve-year-old Stick Lawson lives on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, where life moves steady as the tides, and mysteries abound as long as you look really hard for them. Stick and her friends Rain and Neb are good at looking hard. They call themselves the Dime Novel Kids. And the only thing Stick wants more than a paying case for them to solve is the respect that comes with it. But on Hatteras, the tides are changing. World War II looms, curious newcomers have appeared on the small island, and in the waters off its shores, a wartime menace lurks that will upend Stick’s life and those of everyone she loves. The Dimes are about to face more mysteries than they ever could have wished for, and risk more than they ever could have imagined.

Interview with Sheila Turnage

JH: Island of Spies takes a little-known historical detail about World War II and turns it into an intriguing and un-putdownable mystery featuring the Dime Novel Kids. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the story?  

ST: Right!  Island of Spies is historical fiction for kids, set on Hatteras Island, NC, in 1942 – in the first months of World War II.  At its heart lies a secret bit of US history – the many attacks of Nazi U-Boats, or submarines, on supply ships and passenger ships moving up and down the East Coast.

Those U-Boats not only sank ships, they also put Nazi spies ashore.  The U-Boats’ favorite hunting area?  The tricky waters off the coast of Hatteras Island.  The Graveyard of the Atlantic.

In Island of Spies, three island kids who dream of being famous detectives realize someone on Hatteras Island is a spy, and they do what any brave, smart kids would do: They set out to identify and help capture the spy, to protect their home and the people they love.

I first caught a glimpse of this little-known history when I was about nine years old.  As I walked along the Hatteras Island shore with my father, I spotted a large, black blob on the white sand beach.  What was it?

 “That’s oil,” Daddy said. “In World War II, German U-Boats sat right out there, torpedoing our ships. The ships still sit on the bottom of the sea, releasing oil for the ocean to churn ashore. That’s our secret history. So are the spies.”

 I was hooked.

 A bit later, my family climbed the Hatteras Lighthouse.  At the top I stepped into what becomes, in Island of Spies, the office of our heroes –Stick, Neb, and Rain—the Dime Novel Kids. I saw what narrator Stick Lawson sees when she looks out the window, scanning for U-Boats and spies…

Bit by bit, through research and interviews, the story fell in place over the years.

And now here it is, in Island of Spies.

JH: I love how you took inspiration from these historical events and created an immersive mystery. What appeals to you about writing mysteries? 

ST: I love mysteries in general because I like solving them along with the characters.

As a writer, I find a good mystery makes you think beyond character interaction to the rise and fall of the mystery’s storyline.  So the emotional storyline rises and falls with the mystery’s plotline.  And to me that’s fun – and also a challenge, as a writer.

On a personal and possibly devious note, I also enjoy hiding clues from my readers.

JH: Speaking of characters, each of your characters comes alive and seems to jump off the page and into readers’ hearts.  Can you tell us about your process for creating such original and memorable characters, each with unique talents and perspectives?   

ST: Wow, thanks for saying that.  I’m glad you like them.  I like them and I think readers do too – one reason the book pops up on SIBA’s bestsellers list from time to time, and possibly one reason it also won the Grateful American Book Prize Honor for historical fiction for middle-grade readers.

When I write, I first listen for my characters’ voices in my imagination, and try to capture their rhythm and their voice.  I listen, I write.  I call it creative eavesdropping.

It usually takes lots of drafts to get it right.  At first, I write without worrying too much about balance.  I just try to capture the voices.  In a later draft I look at the characters more objectively, to make sure they aren’t too similar, and to make sure I know what each character fears most, and what each character wants most in this world.

Once I know those things, I start fine-tuning the characters.  I make sure each character changes in the course of the book.  It seems to work out.  And of course, I make the details within the story fit the place and times.

JH: Congratulations on your Grateful American Book Prize Honor!  So well-deserved!  Sticking with the theme of characters for a bit more, Neb, Rain and Stick are perfect and evocative names.  Can you tell us about the inspiration for each character’s name?

ST: Sure!  I love character names.  And since they get repeated so much in a book, I like for mine to carry a double meaning, a reminder of who the characters are as the story moves along.

Neb is short for Nebuchadnezzar.  His Biblical name reflects his mother’s character, and the idea that he’s trapped a bit by his family’s traditions and history – especially by the fact that his father used to be the keeper of the Hatteras Lighthouse.  Religion was huge on the Islands, and it is in Neb’s mother’s life.  And I like the name shortened to Neb because that’s a stubborn sound, and a determined one.

Neb is both stubborn and determined.  He’s also very funny.

Stick’s name is an unusual name, one that “sticks” with you.  I think her name reflects her originality, and courage.  She’s a stand-up kid, plainspoken and true.  She’s determined to be a scientist at a time when girls rarely had that opportunity, for instance, and she will not be denied.  And at the same time Stick is a shortened version of a family name, Stickley.  So, both old and new.

Rain’s name I love because in the story, the word bridges Rain’s mother’s world and Stick’s mother’s world.  It also connects water, air and land.  The name Rain feels soft, innocent, and nourishing.  Like Rain herself.

Together, those three characters are the Dime Novel Kids, and the heart of this book.

JH: You created complex characters, not only in the Dime Novel Kids but also with the authorities and potential spies with whom they interacted. Can you tell us a bit about your process for creating the adult characters?

ST: My process is the same regardless of the character’s age.  First, I listen for the character’s voice in my imagination and make quick notes.  As I get to know them, I uncover their secret fears and hopes.  Knowing those things lets me focus the characters, which makes them consistent, and that helps them come to life.

In this case, I also used history sources and island ethnographies compiled by the National Park Service to help define the details of the characters’ lives, so they were true to that very specific time in our history.

 JH: Who was your favorite character to write and why? 

 ST: Rain was the most complex because of the language barrier and her relationship with her mom, who suffered so during her shipwreck.  I love writing all of my characters, but Rain was a particular delight because she was such a mystery in the beginning.

Stick was the most fun because she is so funny and smart, and so vulnerable in her own way.

JH: Your story is set on Hatteras Island, a North Carolina barrier island, and features a little-known aspect of WWII history. Can you tell us about your research process? 

ST: The story evolved over the years, through beach trips, through an interview with a man who grew up in the lighthouse compound like Neb does, through old-timers’ stories of blackout curtains and sinking ships, through tons of research, museum trips, and more beach trips.

Once I decided to write the story, I did lots of deliberate research on the era – reading books, studying internet sites, studying CIA reports, spy information, etc.  All of the spy gizmos and codes in this book are based on things spies really used, information that was fun to work with.

And because I live in Eastern North Carolina, I’ve heard stories all of my life of the Nazi spies who came ashore and of the ships being torpedoed. I heard those stories from people who saw those things – who heard the explosions, who saw the ships burning out on the sea.  So I relied on first-person, anecdotal information, too.

JH: What was the most surprising thing that you learned in your research process? 

ST: I don’t think I really understood how terrified Americans were at the beginning of World War II.  Think about it: They had already been attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – to the west of mainland USA.  And weeks later, as this story opens, Nazi Germany’s U-boats attack the rich shipping lanes off of North Carolina, to the east, where tricky currents made those ships sitting ducks.  Boom!  Boom!  Boom!

Ship after ship went down.

I also didn’t fully realize that the US couldn’t respond to the U-Boat attacks at first, because so much of our Navy had been damaged at Pearl Harbor.  And I didn’t realize the government deliberately kept news of the German attacks as low-key as possible, to keep America from panicking.  I didn’t realize just how alone the people on Hatteras Island must have felt.

And frankly, I didn’t know there were so many spies in the United States.

JH: I never knew that either. And now your readers have an insight that many Americans didn’t. What was your favorite scene to write?

ST: I loved writing them all.  But maybe the scene where the first ship goes down, just offshore.  That was fun to write because it was so scary!

JH: What would you most like for readers to take away from Island of Spies

ST: I’d like for them to have fun solving the spy mystery along with the Dime Novel Kids, and to learn something about our history along the way.

JH: What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?

ST: I’m hard at work on a new mystery, set in North Carolina.  In it are one murder and two miracles.  I don’t know the title yet, but as soon as I uncover it, I will let you know!

JH:  It sounds intriguing! I can’t wait to read it!

Lightning Round!

No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so. . . .

Favorite cities (besides the one in which you live):  Chicago,  Savannah, and Florence, Italy.

Favorite musical group or artist:  I like so many, I don’t really have a favorite.  As I wrote Island of Spies, I listened to lots of 1940’s music.  Swing, jazz.  The Andrews Sisters, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller…

Would you rather be able to speak every language in the world or talk to animals? 

 Talk to animals, of course!

Favorite ice cream flavor?  Banana walnut.

Do you prefer mountains or beaches or somewhere in between?  I love both but if I could visit only one, it would be the beach.  I feel so content there.

Favorite childhood TV show?  Superman.  And Mighty Mouse.  Hmm.  Maybe it’s the cape.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?  Just sit down and write.  Keep writing to the end even if the first draft’s ugly, because you can always go back and polish it up.

JH: Excellent advice!  Many thanks for making time to visit with us today!

About the Author

Sheila Turnage grew up on a family farm in North Carolina near Tupelo Landing, where the Mo & Dale Mysteries are set, and a couple hours from Hatteras Island, where Island of Spies takes place. She decided to become a writer in first grade, when she wrote her first story. Her teachers helped her.  She went to college at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, and earned a degree in anthropology.  She has written books for adults, poetry, magazine articles – but says that writing for kids is the best.  She says that characters like Mo and Dale, and Stick, Neb, and Rain are fun to write.  They’re smart, funny and brave.

She still lives on the farm she grew up on, along with her husband Rodney, their dog Callie, a flock of chickens, a bossy goose, and a couple of sweet-faced goats.  They have a tin roof, and rain sounds beautiful on it.  This year they planted a small meadow of wildflowers out front.  They are loving it.  So are the deer.

Jo Hackl on Email
Jo Hackl
Jo Watson Hackl has been locked inside a library twice (mostly accidentally) but never has been able to manage sneaking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an overnight stay. Jo grew up in the piney woods of Mississippi surrounded by great storytellers. Her middle grade book, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE (Random House Children’s/Yearling Adventure) is about a girl who runs away to live in a treehouse in a ghost town and sets out on a clue-solving adventure. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina with her family and her poetry-loving dog.